Editor: Vince Gotera
Vol. 286, No. 5 (September-October 2001) Working 53 pages (3 Short stories, 13 Poems, 5 Nonfiction essays, $4.95 (US)
Cover art: Warren Linn, “CIO Derivative” (mixed media on wood)
Vol. 286, No.6 (November-December 2001) The Multicultural Issue 57 pages (5 Short Stories, 22 Poems, 4 Nonfiction essays), $4.95 (US)
Cover art: Gary Kelley, “Hopi Reader” (oil)
Putting Things in Their Place
“The North American Review is the oldest literary magazine in America (founded in 1815) and one of the most respected. We are interested in high-quality poetry, fiction, and nonfiction on any subject; however, we are especially interested in work that addresses contemporary North American concerns and issues, particularly with the environment, race, gender, ethnicity and class.”
51; North American Review
I’m a white-collar worker. I’m a white-collar worker. This is my mantra as I read the Working issue of the North American Review. Because it turns out there is a difference between the blue and the white.
Like many kids when I was in college, my friends and I would come home for the summer and get ourselves summer jobs. I don’t remember saving any money, but I must have put my weak paycheck aside for school-year fun or textbooks or something. In any case, the first few weeks of the summer were always spent scouring the want ads and asking my parent’s friends if they could direct me to anything promising. As an art student, I couldn’t bear the thought of a job in retail sales or customer service. I couldn’t even handle imagining a scene where I waited on my former schoolmates or their parents. So I applied for a summer job on a garbage route. This was to be my first introduction to labor as lifestyle.
I thought back on these experiences as I read “Midnight Shift” by Katherine Karlin in the Working issue of NAR. Karlin’s story is about a night in the life of a woman in an oil refinery. It typifies the vision of labor that the journal seems intent on conveying in this issue. At the same time, with its underlying sexual tension, it reads like the opening act of a porn film - or, at the very least, a male fantasy about a night in the life of a woman in an oil refinery. And this is what gave me pause. Literary history is filled with people writing about the noble underclass. Everyone wants to valorize the difficult life that other people live so that they can feel better about their own world. This is so common that I tend to look for it everywhere.
Even when it may not actually be there.
When I consider the little I know about the realities of blue-collar work, I find I understand these characters. They resonate with my own limited experience.
To go back, for a moment, to my own story: I hesitate to speculate on why the Lakewood Department of Sanitation needed to hire seven or eight underpaid college boys for the summer, though I imagine that some of the regular guys must have been on vacation with their families. We got $5.00 an hour to join the ranks of the full-time union men for three months of hot, smelly work. It wasn’t as thankless as you might think, but it was a grind, without a doubt.
On our lunch break, the driver would park the truck and we would sit on the sidewalk and eat. If the driver was a fast-food guy, we would eat in the Burger King parking lot. If he brought his lunch, we would eat in front of some lucky individual’s house. I bring up lunches because that was when I felt the segregation most strongly. We were “college boys” and we read books over lunch instead of sleeping or laughing with the other guys. And we never breached that gulf.
Which is how I can recognize Karlin’s men. They joke with each other about things that they think are easy - sex and gambling, mostly. They wish life worked like a porn film, and it’s tough to be an outsider wanting to be inside that world.
Halfway through the story, I had to stop and glance back at the title to verify that it was, in fact, written by a woman. It seemed unlikely to me that this was a female perspective. Here’s me, always seeing the monster under the bed. So I stop for a moment and ask myself, “What do I know of a woman’s perspective? In fact, what right do I have to assume there is such a thing?”
And for that matter, what right do I have to question the mythos of the American Worker or the position taken by a journal on that myth? Perhaps there is some truth to the legends. As a white, formerly suburban “city boy,” “college boy” and often a man with “strange taste in clothing,” I am situated in an awkward place for such judgments. Karlin’s main character reminded me of myself on the garbage route: a visitor under scrutiny, uncertain of my own knowledge, looking to others’ expertise, but judging and watching all the same.
Since its inception, the North American Review has been a journal with a reputation for strong “literary” writing. This type of approach has seen a dwindling audience in recent years. Partly in response to this, they have taken on a new and ambitious project. Under new editorial leadership, what they seem to have undertaken is the important (though now common) task of “giving voice.” This is a terribly important, but equally dangerous, role to play. By making a space for these voices, they imply certain claims to “authenticity” and representation. As a result, they carve out worlds based on insider and outsider knowledge. Of course, the point is to share that knowledge, to help “us” identify with “them,” but that isn’t easy when “we” have been made aware of our alternative status. And by choosing to sequester these voices in special issues, NAR ceases to be a journal simply featuring fine writing and grows into something else.
Both the September/ October issue entitled “Working” and the more recent “Multicultural issue” simultaneously reify and ghettoize the subjects that are contained within. This is by no means a criticism, and I don’t mean to challenge the importance of these voices. This is simply the challenge that faces us today. While still needing to categorize, we are caught in a world where categorization is fraught with difficulties.
This is the overwhelming task that this venerable journal has taken upon itself.
In the Multicultural issue, Susan Atefat-Peckham wrote an essay that touches upon this dilemma of the seemingly unbridgeable chasm between groups. As an Iranian-American and an author who speaks often of her love of her familial home, she holds an unlikely and unfriendly position as spokesperson for a diverse group of people facing difficulties in their own home. Like many others, she has recently had to struggle with her own position, being of the Middle-East and living in the Mid-West. But, she says, “compassion connects us.” She writes wistfully about “them” and “us,” and is unable to avoid trying to make the distinction. But who is “us” when I am asked to identify with the inner voice of a character who is not “like me”?
The contradictions are many, and the North American Review is not the first or the last to engage them. To its credit, it manages to do so with some skill and humor. The writing strives for accessibility to the widest audience possible, an editorial decision that is understandable at a time of declining readership figures and rising publication costs. As this journal grows even older and more venerable, it will undoubtedly find new ways to navigate these difficult waters without sacrificing the quality of the writing that fills their pages.